Yaku, the invisible candidate making his mark on Ecuador’s politics

By Daniela Brik

Quito, Apr 12 (EFE).- The presidential runoff election in Ecuador, won by center-rightist Guillermo Lasso, demonstrated in its nullified vote total the influence of the so-called invisible indigenous candidate, Yaku Perez, who has established a new agenda in Ecuadorian politics and now will push forward with it in the national legislature.

“We didn’t do any campaigning, just issued a call for null votes and having that vote is historic,” the leader of the Pachakutik movement told EFE in an interview.

Perez was just 32,000 votes shy of competing in the second round, coming in behind the current president-elect in the first round of ballotting.

The historic average for null votes in Ecuador is above 9 percent, the highest for a presidential election since 2006, when null votes totaled 11.8 percent.

After Perez’s call to Ecuador’s voters, null votes on Sunday stood at 16.33 percent of the ballots cast, with 99.07 percent of the total ballots counted, meaning that more than 1.7 million voters cast null ballots, a few less than in the first round.

At age 52 and with more than two decades of environmental activism behind him, Perez had called on his supporters to cast null ballots in protest over what he said was election fraud in the initial election round on Feb. 7.

And they did not fail him, despite the attempts to sow internal division in the indigenous movement after the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), Jaime Vargas, backed the candidate supported by former President Rafael Correa, Andres Arauz.

“We’re winning throughout Amazonia, in the six provinces; we’re winning in 13 of the (country’s) 24 provinces, it’s one more piece of evidence of … fraud,” said Perez upon seeking to turn the page and determine how he can push forward with his agenda with the greatest parliamentary representation (27 seats) garnered so far by the indigenous movement after the February vote.

The “Yaku” factor – “yaku” meaning “water” in the Kichwa language – has had a relatively unnoticed albeit determining effect on the campaigns of the two presidential hopefuls, forcing them to leave to the side the ideological confrontation between left and right to focus on rampant inequality, defending forgotten groups (indigenous peoples, women and the LGTB community) and the climate crisis.

Holding a doctorate in jurisprudence and an avid saxophone lover, Perez “will try from the Legislature” to push forward with his four-element campaign – ecology, economy, education and ethics – with the backing of the 27 lawmakers who will take office in May and make Pachakutik the country’s second-largest political grouping.

Regarding his position with the man who will be Ecuador’s new president, Perez said he believes it’s an “opportunity for President Lasso to keep his promises” and that he will not have any problem admitting that but “if he doesn’t keep them, we’ll be the first to be in the opposition, a sustained resistance.”

The election winner, however, did not inspire confidence – Perez said – when he “failed” on Feb. 12 during a face-to-face dialogue before the election commission in calling for a vote recount to dispel any suspicion of fraud in the first round but then reversed himself the very next day.

Perez said that he would try and work with the government on having “open and transparent dialogue, not secrets … if we have to get behind it so the country can move forward on Covid, the economic crisis, ethics and ecology.”

But he warned that he will oppose the government if it doesn’t ensure that water sources will be unaffected by the mining industry, doesn’t lower interest rates or fails to fulfill its promise of work for all Ecuadorians without favoring the country’s economic elites.

During Rafael Correa’s 2007-2017 term in the presidency, Perez was sent to jail four times on charges of sabotage and terrorism, and he said that the former leader’s “camouflaged leftist … populist” political movement is on the wane and, in fact, coming to its end.

“When one thing weakens, another is born, an alternative left that’s not dogmatic or fundamentalist but rather a real left committed to the poor, the peasants, the indigenous peoples.”

Perez said that his movement constitutes a “third way” not only in Ecuador but throughout the region, with its contacts and alignment on many issues with other ethnicities such as the Mapuches and Aimaras.

A committed pacifist and defender of non-violent resistance, Perez said “I believe we have legitimacy … They stole the election from us but not hope, dreams and – whether it’s me or not – we have a future ahead of us (in politics),” a new face of indigenous activism that is understood as the guardian of vital natural resources.


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